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Land of Extraction

An oil and gas boom in New Mexico raises the stakes for emerging leaders

The last two years have brought boom times to New Mexico. The state, among the country’s poorest in terms of poverty rate and median income, is home to a fat slice of the Permian Basin, epicenter of the national fracking boom. The oil and gas industry has pulsed in New Mexico for nearly a century, but record output since the fracking wells came online has transformed the typical state budget shortfalls into a sudden surplus that may reach $2 billion.

“The whole oil explosion in southeastern New Mexico, it’s pretty incredible the amount of money that’s being generated down there because of this relatively new technology: fracking, horizontal drilling,” says Joe Monahan, a longtime political commentator in the state. “So it’s going to be a big issue: how we spend the money that’s being generated there. That’s the most immediate question that policy-makers will face.”

The state’s poverty has meant high rates of crime—particularly in Albuquerque, of Breaking Bad fame—and of joblessness. Each calls for attention. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Michelle Lujan Grisham would like to plough that surplus directly into the state’s school system, which state courts ruled in July is unconstitutionally underfunded. Lujan Grisham, the slim favorite in her race, cites enhanced public education as a top priority. She is a three-term Congress member from New Mexico’s 1st district, which includes most of Albuquerque and its surroundings and is the state’s most urban district. Lujan Grisham is running a centrist campaign for a Democrat in 2018: she hopes to quickly raise the minimum wage to a modest $10, and to $12 within four years; she promotes an “all of the above” energy approach, albeit with an emphasis on renewables; and she has offered cautious support for legalized marijuana, which has been a windfall for states nearby.

Steve Pearce, her opponent, is a seven-term member of Congress from Hobbs, in the state’s more rural and Anglo south. He is an oil and gas man himself. After endorsing Trump in 2016, he has tried to cut a more moderate image in this year’s race, avoiding yoking himself too closely to the president. That’s partially because typical GOP dog-whistle politics do not play quite as well in New Mexico as elsewhere. The state is majority-minority, and its politics reflect that: it has had a Latino governor for the last sixteen years, with Democrat Bill Richardson and Republican Susana Martinez serving eight years apiece.

Minority majorities do not translate to Democratic washes, though, even if the state has been trending blue over the last two decades. Much of the Hispanic population in New Mexico can trace lineage back to Spanish settlers and distinguish themselves from more recent Latin-American immigrants, and from the longtime Chicano population, as well. That can make for a sort of elite Hispanicism that looks unlike anything else in the United States. Hints of that distinction were on display last week when Mike Pence came to Roswell for a rally to support Pearce and Yvette Herrell, the Republican congressional candidate in southern New Mexico. Herrell is locked in a closer-than-expected race in her traditionally conservative district with Xochitl Torres Small, a young and charismatic water rights attorney running a conservative campaign for a Democrat—a recent TV spot focused, essentially, on nothing but her shooting guns while hunting, and radio ads slam her Republican opponent for raising taxes.

Typical GOP dog-whistle politics do not play quite as well in New Mexico as elsewhere. The state is majority-minority, and its politics reflect that.

At the rally of a few hundred partisans, Pearce, Herrell, and Pence beat familiar drums: gun ownership, pro-life bona fides, faith in tax cuts and in America. In what felt like cut-and-paste from the last presidential election, Pearce lobbed vague accusations of corruption at Lujan Grisham, a professional woman whose name—Lujan—has political clout in the state: several of her relatives have held high-profile posts in New Mexico government. Pence talked up national job creation and the Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation, and urged the caravan of migrants traveling from Central America through Mexico to “turn around.” (Herrell, the would-be congresswoman, supports building a border wall; Pearce does not.)

I spoke at the rally with Esther Rivera, a self-proclaimed “Democrat for Pearce” who had come from the heavily Hispanic and Latino South Valley outside Albuquerque to support the Republican for governor. She shook her head at what she saw as an extreme Democratic Party beholden to identity politics, decrying, for example, the recent cancellation of a centuries-old Spanish pageant[*] in Santa Fe due to concerns about its offensiveness to indigenous groups. “How can you look at someone’s story and say ‘That’s evil, all of that is evil. You’re evil.’? How can you expect me to tell my kids, ‘You’re the result of genocidal rapists?’”

Rivera explained that she had voted for Hillary Clinton, just as she voted Democrat for decades, but had been turned off by what she sees as the party’s pivot to a new style of politics. Until recently, she said, New Mexico was a “beautiful melding of cultures,” and, like many New Mexicans, her family tree bears that out to a degree: she traces her Spanish roots in the state back fourteen generations; her ex-husband, the father of her children, is a first-generation Mexican immigrant; her aunt is indigenous, from Taos Pueblo. “Progressives have a very divisive message. Until I see them embrace something that is inclusive, we’re gonna look for other opportunities.”

As she spoke, the crowd behind her broke into a chant: “Build that wall! Build that wall!”

Back in Albuquerque, I sat down with George Luján, executive director of the social and economic justice-oriented SouthWest Organizing Project. Lujan, who identifies as Chicano, sees the self-segregation of Hispanics from other Latinos as a tool of white supremacy. “That’s a form of internal racism,” he says. “You establish that conditions for brown people are going to be inferior to conditions for white people, and that creates a desire to be more white. You have people attempting to be whiter so they can have access to all that.”

“That comes up every election season,” he continues. “There’s that year’s specific issues, and then there’s also a several-hundred-years-long battle to protect our homelands from the invasion of white supremacy.”

Whether Herrell or Torres Small wins the race for New Mexico’s 2nd congressional district—polls show the race as a virtual toss-up—either candidate will be the first woman to represent the district. The widely touted “Year of the Woman” is on full display elsewhere in the state, as well. For the congressional seat that Lujan Grisham is vacating, the strong favorite is Democrat Deb Haaland, who upon election would become the first-ever Native American woman in Congress (a laurel she may end up sharing with Sharice Davids, running in Kansas). New Mexico is the second most Native American state in the country, according to census data, with twenty-three federally recognized tribes constituting just over 10 percent of the population. Haaland, a former chair of the state’s Democratic Party, is among a crop of Native American politicians who have become politically energized across the West following the spark of Standing Rock. She has promoted her candidacy as an entrée into government affairs for the state’s tribes, whose political power in New Mexico has yet to manifest.

“A way I feel I can at least get more knowledge into our government is by ensuring that tribal leaders have a seat at the table, because they haven’t necessarily had that opportunity,” Haaland says. “We have government-to-government relationship with Indian tribes, so their voices should already be heard.”

Since New Mexico formally legalized gambling on reservations in 1997—nearly a decade after the passage of the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act—tribes in the state have had more money to push into politics. Their political clout has risen accordingly. But Haaland represents something new. Noting Haaland’s vocal support for federal military campuses on New Mexican land, even as her “not too distant relatives were probably among those who fought an invading US military on New Mexico soil in the 19th century,” Joe Monahan writes that Haaland’s campaign is “transcendent, going beyond the politics of the day or even Haaland’s own individuality.”

Oil and gas interests, which have donated heavily to Garcia Richard’s opponent, are now eyeing fracking wells along the aquifer running underneath the Rio Grande.

As the candidacies of women of color generate breathless headlines nationwide, though, New Mexicans find the current crop of Democrats unsurprising. “It’s usual in our state,” says Stephanie Garcia Richard, the Democratic candidate for Land Commissioner. “We’re a majority-minority state. So it’s a little bit different here. It’s more commonplace.” Still, she says, “it certainly is exciting. We have the potential to elect the first Native woman to Congress in New Mexico. It changes, a little bit, the dynamic of the discussion. Representation matters. For me, it feels gratifying to be surrounded by colleagues that look like me.”

Garcia Richard’s campaign—for the office that determines how oil and gas companies can operate on state lands, and which keeps an eye on the state’s scarce water supplies—has taken on outsize importance in a year when oil money is the undercurrent shaping the local political landscape. Oil and gas interests, which have donated heavily to Garcia Richard’s opponent, are now eyeing fracking wells along the aquifer running underneath the Rio Grande—from which around half of all New Mexicans draw their water—and hoping to drill the lands around Chaco Canyon, home to a wealth of Pueblo ruins and an important site to Native Americans in the state. The latter conflict—pitting extractive industry against indigenous land interests—echoes the selling off of nearby Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah, and the conflict at Standing Rock before them. It’s easy to envision how greater Native political representation could play a role in the ultimate decision.

New Mexicans, as a whole, care about the land. This is a state where gubernatorial debates include questions about where in New Mexico the candidates would spend a free weekend, and each candidate can answer honestly and poignantly (Pearce: “The drive from Santa Fe up to Chama”; Lujan Grisham: “White Sands.”) I wondered aloud to Garcia Richard if the industry priming the state’s pump might leave New Mexicans bought in, though, making regulation more difficult. “I think that even though people may be appreciative of the impact it’s had on our economy, they also want to make sure at the end of the day that their freshwater isn’t polluted from fracking, they want to make sure that the landscape isn’t damaged,” she said. “They value protecting what we hold dear in New Mexico.”

Haaland hopes that Garcia Richard is right. “I always worry about the fossil fuel industry, I’ll be honest with you,” she says. “I feel very strongly that we can work toward renewable energy at the same time the gas and oil industry is doing what they’re doing. Gas and oil does not have to be the only funding stream for our state.” Legalized cannabis, she suggests, could help fund public schools, as it has in neighboring Colorado and nearby Nevada. Meanwhile, the stakes in New Mexico are heightened by factors both local and global. “Climate change is going to affect the Southwest in a far greater way than it is perhaps in other locations. We’re in a high desert landscape, and the more we suffer from drought, the harder it’s going to be to grow food, for the ranching industry, for all these other things that need water. We can’t wait for the last minute to care about it. We need to care about it right now.”


[*] Clarification: The wording of this sentence has been updated to clarify that it was a “pageant,” not a festival, that was ended. The tradition known as the Entrada—which celebrated the Spanish conquest of Native Americans in what is now New Mexico—was cancelled. The Fiesta de Santa Fe continues.